Pulling a Geographic

by on December 10, 2013


NEIL GAIMAN, THE GRAVEYARD BOOK: It’s like the people who believe they’ll be happy if they go and live somewhere else, but who learn it doesn’t work that way. Wherever you go, you take yourself with you.

At my count I’ve lived eight lives. Saskatchewan, Manitoba, British Columbia, Vermont, Massachusetts, Vermont again, New Hampshire, Vermont again. I have been moving, and I hope to keep moving, all my life. In my mind this is one of the things that artists, writers, do. It is tied up inextricably with the old myth of creative madness, or the necessity of liquor and cigarettes in the artistic process. We choose which myth is true, which false, which is frivolous story, which essential to our condition. I have made this one my own: writers are homeless, writers are from away, writers are other.

TERRY GROSS: So do you think the sense of not belonging anywhere helped to give you a sense of independence when you got older?

DORIS LESSING: Yes. I’m sure of it. Of course. Because you’re not bound to the—you’re always looking at any country you’re in from the outside.

GROSS: And has that helped you as a writer?

LESSING: Very much. Yes.

This is not wanderlust, not the desire to go and see and then return; this is the desire to go away and away and away and never return. To touch everything you own once at a time, place it into boxes, take it somewhere new. I have seen this impulse described as a product of a childhood of moving, but I have also heard it described in terms of addiction. In Alcoholics Anonymous they have a term for this impulse to move as a way to escape your current problems: “pulling a geographic.” Like it is a magic trick, like the possibility of leaving everything needs to be referred to in code, or else it might not work.

INTERVIEWER: And did you not make any new friends in the next town?

ANNE CARSON: I did, but it gets a little more gingerly as time goes on. At least half of your mind is always thinking, I’ll be leaving; this won’t last. It’s a good Buddhist attitude. It prepares you for life as a Buddhist. If I were a Buddhist, this would be a great help. As it is, I’m just sad.

We poets are supposed to be sad, aren’t we, Anne? And yet this idea, however sincere, is so insufferable and self-pitying I am embarrassed to admit it.

Donald Hall meandered through Connecticut, Massachusetts, England, Massachusetts again, and Michigan before moving to New Hampshire; there he stayed. It was in Wilmot he became the icon of New England poetry that he is still. I asked him once, at a reading, if he believed he could have been the poet he is if he hadn’t come to Eagle Pond, and he replied with a simple ‘no.’ He didn’t elaborate, but I can’t help but think that Donald did it. He pulled off a geographic. He left and he left and he left and then he stayed. And when he found the place, when he was no longer the other, he became the poet.